The Merchant Hotel
16 Skipper Street
Belfast BT1 2DZ
Tel: 028 9023 4888
IT IS very much a symbol of post-peace Belfast, a five-star hotel built in aftermath of the Troubles in a grand old building that once housed the headquarters of Ulster Bank. Now a place where visitors to our city neck premium gins, sip vintage Champagne and dine on the finest of fare, it is like a metaphor for the regeneration of this strange place we live.
I've always loved the Merchant Hotel, its over-the-top decor, high, ornate ceilings and heel-clicking service release happy endorphins in my brain.
And so I'm delighted that despite 12 years as the poshest hotel in Belfast the standards haven't slipped in the hotel's palatial Grand Hall.
Let me also say I do love a tasting menu and have been lucky enough to experience a fair few outstanding examples over the years.
Basically I panic when ordering from a really good menu and then instantly regret my choice and then have food envy of other people's plates, so a tasting menu means I get a little bit of everything without the need to stare at my fellow diners like Oliver with a begging bowl for the scraps from their plate.
The Merchant do a nine-course tasting menu. Yes, people, you read that correctly: nine beautifully decadent courses with wine pairing.
Get the waistbands loosened up, settle into those sumptuous red velvet seats and prepare to be dazzled.
The table, with the crispest of white table cloths, was bejewelled with silverware, an array of knives and forks on either side letting you know this was going to be a long and wonderful night. Remember – work from the outside in and you can't go wrong.
We started with an amuse-bouche... well, we started with a gin and tonic and then an amuse bouche. First up was my favourite course of the night, a lobster ravioli with a langoustine bisque and a glass of crisp T'air d'Oc, Domaine de Gayda from France.
I'm not going to pretend to know a lot about wine despite the fact I drink a lot of wine, but our wine waiter did know a lot and explained why he had matched it with what was the most amazingly sweet, delicate lobster, in tissue-thin pasta surrounded by a bisque that had been kissed by the angels, with a light dusting of toasted almonds for texture.
As with all tasting menus, the portions are small so taste and packing as much flavour in as possible is essential and this ticked every box.
There was a wintery venison next, to cheer up this never-ending season of gloom, smoked pastrami style with blackberry, walnut and beetroot, paired expertly with a New Zealand Pinot Noir.
There was a scallop next with artichoke and a sage gnocci; a barely there covering of wafer-thin lardo brought a depth of flavour to the perfectly cooked little scallop.
I don't even need to mention the precision of presentation – it is a given that each plate provided a feast for the eyes and palate.
We took a short interval at this stage, to people watch and enjoy the amazing wine served with each course before the main event. You've two choices here, the wild seabass or Irish fillet of beef. Luckily there were two of us so we'd one each.
My seabass was full of promise that summer would eventually come, with citrus fruits, fennel, a sesame cracker and a fresh lemongrass froth. It was a south of France sitting on the marina with a glass of wine checking out potential second husbands type of dish. Perfectly paired with an Australian chardonnay.
The beef was a reminder of a different season, rich dark and wintry. To cook such a small piece of beef perfectly pink and rested is no easy task. It was served with a slither of pancetta terrine and a bone marrow gravy. It was a different level of delicious; every element worked. It came with a glass of Malbec, a Graffigna, Grand reserve. Don't know how much that gear costs a bottle but if you're into Malbec, give it a go.
A little sorbet took us from savoury to sweet and the next two courses, an apple tarte with Calvados mousse and vanilla ice cream, served with a Mocato.
There was a tiny little cheese board and a glass of port to end.
We had enjoyed every mouthful and relished every sip, so the petit fours that came with the coffee were barely touched. Ask for them to be boxed up for home, they won't mind. The service was outstanding and knowledgeable.
This is not a Friday night tea, but quality, fine dining that will leave you feeling like you've not had a meal but an experience.
The menu is £70 for the nine courses or £90 with the wine pairing. Considering the quality of the food, wine, service and surroundings, that is seriously good value for money.
Tasting menu with wine £90 x 2